“She has done what she could, She has anticipated anointing my body for burial. Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
. . . . .
“My soul is sorrowful, even to death.”
Mark 14:8-9, 34
As yesterday we read from the passion according to Mark, I found myself pondering the sorrow that Jesus suffers in the Garden of Gethsemane. Of course, it is sorrow at his threatened state and impending death. Yet, it seems to me it could also have involved a deep sense of discouragement. This was illuminated for me when in his homily the priest celebrating mass pointed out that the God who created the universe and who continues, even now, to keep it in being could have gotten down from the cross when taunted to do so, and even could have brought the world to an end.
As he said this, I thought of what my tendency and desire often is when I am thwarted by others or events, when my efforts and work seem unappreciated and even rejected, and when things work out so differently from my ideas and aspirations. At such moments, had I the power, I would bring the world to an end. I would destroy those who reject me or even who merely ignore me.
On the night before he dies and on which he is arrested, Jesus’ pain of heart and soul must be unbearable. He comes to bring love and light to the world; yet, that very world is going to kill him. He has now lived on the earth for his 33 years, and he sees how so many human persons settle for so little of what life can be. He recognizes that what the majority of humans call life is but a weak and poor imitation of the real thing. He lives the fire that is love and sees around him those who, at best, merely very occasionally get close enough to that fire to melt that which is most frigid in them. He has come to offer to everyone “life to the full” and experiences that, for the most part, we are unwilling to receive it.
Although it seems clear in the passion accounts that Jesus experiences great sorrow at this moment and not discouragement, I think of the experience in that way because it is mine. The truth that no matter how hard I work the world will not bend itself to my will makes me discouraged. I am always tempted to lose heart when my work does not bear the fruit that I wish it would. So, I get angry and either would punish or, at least, set straight those who don’t respond to my efforts, or else fall back into myself and give up trying. Were I God, I would, as the homilist suggested, destroy the world that is so frustrating and hurting me.
St. Teresa of Avila in speaking of the life of prayer and union with God says that so few enter the depth of union to which God is calling them because they lack “a little determination.” Perhaps nothing distinguishes Teresa’s life and disposition as much as her determination and steadfastness in doing what is called for, even when it is hard. This is also clearly the case with Jesus. Unlike them, I live a constant struggle with acedia, with the deep pervasive laziness that is always tending, with various manifestations, to give up. I wonder if over a lifetime I haven’t learned this laziness through the refusal to learn how to respond to disappointment and discouragement.
Sorrow, discouragement, and disappointment, although inevitable in life, are extremely painful. They are the reality check on our ego that tends to think we are in possession of the knowledge of what is best for the world. They are experiences which truly test the transcendent or spiritual quality of our hopes and aspirations. Yet, these experiences of disappointment tend to so wound us that we are very apt to repress the fire of our own longing, hope, and aspiration that give rise to the pain. While sorrow, discouragement, and disappointment are the crucible by which our motivations are purified, the pain often seems too much fo us. As a result, we, in one way or another, give up on our lives and our work. Jesus does not. He does not come down off the cross, much less destroy the world, he, rather, finishes his work to the end.
On Friday, I had a graced and challenging conversation with a colleague and collaborator. It was a conversation that challenged my own motivation by asking me about my level of commitment to our shared work and my degree of freedom from my own hoped for results. As Meister Eckhart reminds us, when we do what we do for any reason whatsoever all is not well with us. As Jesus with his whole life, we are called to live our lives and to do our work only because it is ours to do. The results are not our business. In this interchange I experienced the profound truth that one of the greatest conditions for developing determination and avoiding discouragement is the challenging presence of spiritual companions as fellow workers.
The story of the woman who breaks the jar of oil and pours it over Jesus’ head is a summons to us of how to respond in our times of sorrow and discouragement. Jesus says of the woman “She has done what she could.” This is precisely the opposite of “giving up.” It is discovering in ourselves the power of “good will” that we carry within ourselves. As mentioned above, the presence and encouragement and challenge of others is a great help in remembering this power. Yet, finally, we must realize this deepest transcendent potency in ourselves.
Richard Byrne, OCSO, points out that in some way or other we are all “trapped within our particular human condition.” It may be that these limits of ours will never be transcended in this life. What we can always do, says Byrne, is “say yes to God.” The way we do this is by “doing what we can.” Jesus says that “My Father is always working and so am I” (John 5:17). Because of the fullness of his heart and its capacity for love, it is certain that the sorrow that Jesus undergoes in the garden is likely the greatest sorrow ever known to humankind. Jesus suffers our human obtuseness, laziness, and despair more acutely than any of the rest of us are able. Yet he bears the sorrow, not in passivity but in activity. He continues on the road to his death, to the finishing of his work, with absolute resolution and determination.
Every time we are subject to disappointment and discouragement we are called to the same choice: the choice to give up or to do what we can. At the very moment when it appears to us that our efforts have been fruitless and nihilism and cynicism threaten to overtake us, it is then we are called to remember that “the Father is always working” and so must we. Recently we have had a series of regional meetings in the community in which the question was posed to each of us: “What is God asking me to do at this moment?” One person reflected that given our age this might not be a good question. Perhaps it should rather be, “Who is God asking me to be?” Yet, both questions are really the same. It is only in acting that we truly can be. Even in our sickbeds, each moment is a call to finish the work we have been given to do: to do what we can.
As we enter the mystery of Holy Week this year, may we walk with Jesus as he finishes his work so that we might begin to know not only his call to finish our work but his presence that enables us to do it. The passage from living for ourselves and our false form of life to living and doing the work of the Christ form in us must pass through sorrow, disappointment, and potential discouragement. To become discouraged is to alienate ourselves from our own hearts. It is to believe we are unable to bear the pain such feelings evoke in us. So, we reduce life to routine and distraction, to a “quiet desperation.” We “forget” our own life’s work. It is by refusing to dissociate from our hearts and doing what we can in the midst of our disappointment and discouragement that we follow Christ as he, and we, finish the work that has been given us to do.
. . . love for God is above all a matter of willing. Whenever we quietly say, “Yes, your will be done” to the Father in union with Christ, we are loving God. We love, even if this free choice of God has no immediate effect on our behavior or conscious interiority; even if we cannot change our deficiencies; even if we have no felt awareness of God or seem completely overwhelmed by our own unredeemed selves or by the forces of evil and confusion around us.
We are all on some level trapped within our particular human condition. An alcohol problem, anger we cannot control, a difficult or broken marriage, an envious temperament, sexual and relational problems, a mid-life crisis: the faces of it are beyond counting. All of us can spend a lifetime seeking freedom from our special entrapment. We think that when we are rid of it, we will love God and grow in holiness. We can make this the key issue in our Christian lives. But this is not it. The key issue and the Good News are that we imprisoned people can always say yes to God. It is this good will that pleases God in spite of our subsequent failures; it is this that marks authentic growth in holiness and religious commitment.
Richard Byrne, OCSO, On Doing What We Can: Good Will As An Origin of Contemplative Living
John, thank you for this inspiring piece. The work does indeed matter!